One of the great things about baseball is movie directors and people in the entertainment business enjoy depicting the sport in their projects. As a fan, this means that you get to see teams, players, and stories on television and the big screen that you would normally have to be at a live game to see. One of my favorite things to do is to watch a baseball movie, particularly a documentary, and then mention it to one of my friends. More times than not, they have recently watched the same thing I have, and it leads to a baseball discussion that is filled with great thoughts, concepts, and name-dropping.
I watched a documentary on Netflix recently which followed the 2011 seasons of Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey. These were the two only Major League Knuckleball pitchers (Wakefield has since retired), and the movie is subsequently named Knuckleball! Both of these pitchers have released autobiographies in the past few years. Although I chose not to buy them because both players played for teams I highly dislike, the Red Sox and Mets, I have gotten Dickey’s book to keep on my book shelf until I get around to it. I plan to look for Wakefield’s book soon as well. The stories presented in the documentary that briefly touch on their past and then dive into the 2011 season are very compelling, and being the baseball fanatic that I am, both of these stories are highly interesting.
Knuckleball pitchers are far and few between, and ironically, both of the pitchers did not start out as Knuckleball pitchers. Wakefield was in fact a hitter who had over 40 career home runs and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates to be a first baseman. Dickey was a pitcher with considerable talent, but was never a top of the line starter and quickly became another arm in whichever rotation he was in. Very rarely do players start out as children aspiring to be a Knuckleball pitcher, and even as players get older, the Knuckleball is something that every kid does for fun when warming up. “Watch this one!” “Try and catch this knuckler!” “Even Pujols can’t touch this movement!”
A favorite moment of mine in the documentary is when Wakefield and Dickey have a conversation with and meet two other Knuckleball legends, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro. This very rare group of pitchers has shared stories that have similar outcomes with different paths that lead to the same result – being a Knuckleball pitcher. These players recount with each other how they came to thrown the spinless pitch and how they dealt with the journey that encompasses a player who ends up being a Knuckleball pitcher. It is neither conventional nor routine nor ordinary. In fact, it is usually a last resort at an attempt to stay in the Major Leagues and to stay in the professional baseball ranks period.
There is always a younger hyped up prospect that throws hard and has great potential. There is always a veteran who has worked his butt off to get to where he is and is working even harder to stay there now that he has lost some of his stuff. There is never room to keep both, and I will give you a guess which one teams tend to keep. Dickey and Wakefield both were close to being done with baseball, Dickey as a Major League pitcher and Wakefield as a professional player. While Wakefield was throwing the pitch since his first start, Dickey had to learn the pitch later on in his career. For both players though, they faced the uphill battle of being seen as odd, different, and quickly overlooked by many scouts and coaches.
Knuckleballs can be unhittable
Just because a Knuckleball is coming into the plate much slower than a typical fastball, it does not make it any easier to hit. While you could virtually read the words on the baseball as it floats in to home plate, your eyes would quickly be looking at nothing as the ball suddenly drops and cuts from side to side. If the pitch wasn’t very effective, you would never see big league hitters strike out when facing it – but they do. And effective pitchers like Dickey and Wakefield have the ability to make the ball dance all around the strike zone while changing speeds as well. The speed range may not be as much as from a fastball to a changeup, but it is still significant enough to throw a hitter off balance and ruin his timing, which is all it takes to make a Triple Crown winner like Miguel Cabrera go from hitting a 400 foot home run to almost throwing his back out when the ball drops like it fell out of an airplane.
Knuckleball pitches can be very effective when the movement is ecstatic and the hitters become fooled by constantly guessing and missing. The opposite scenario – a Knuckleball that does not break, is a hitter’s dream pitch. It floats in to the strike zone with nothing but a passport for the center field fence, because that is probably where it will end up if the hitter has any power at all.
When a Knuckleball pitcher like Dickey or Wakefield can’t find the right grip, whether it be because of their nails or the weather or anything at all that makes their pitch ineffective, the manager can’t afford to keep them in the game very long. While other struggling pitchers have different pitches to choose from, a Knuckleball pitcher has the Knuckleball and probably a Fastball. Neither is going to blow by any hitter, and both are going to be flat as a table. Unless a hitter gets himself out by rolling over or dipping his back shoulder, this could lead to a multitude of runs for the opposing team.
The risk/reward trade-off throwing a Knuckleball is that you can look like an all-star if you get the ball to move and throw off hitters, while you can also make a team look like a roster of Babe Ruth’s children if you can’t get the movement or breaking action. If a player decides to throw it, he probably is on a last whim trying to be successful in baseball, but if he learns how to throw it effectively, the player can become a dominant force for a team, especially if pitching in between rocket arms throwing in the upper 90’s. There is nothing a hitter hates more than getting used to a fast pitch and then seeing the slow pitch; that is why the change-up is considered the most effective pitch in baseball. Imagine if all those high heat pitchers learned how to throw a Knuckleball as well…